"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Saturday, January 23, 2016


EVERY STORY BENEFITS from twists and turns.  They are what keep us tuned in, turning pages, or--in table top gaming--turning up.  I have been trying to run Jihad in the style of television programmes like Buffy, Babylon V, or more recently Doctor Who, shows that contain distinct stories each week but in addition link into longer arcs.  Obviously, inside the stories themselves there are plot twists to keep the audience on its toes, but you also need a few in the larger arc to keep that interesting too.  Crossroads follows hard on the heels of just such a twist.  The Amber Pope prophesied the rise of a terrible threat in the north at the start of the first session.  Six more sessions in, it turns out the players themselves are responsible for releasing it.  

Now, the thing that is unique about table-top gaming is that the characters are people with minds and wills of their own.  The argument can be made--and I have often made it--that this holds true of characters in any tale.  In my experience at least, characters are feisty little buggers that happily rebel when the author foolishly tries to make them do what they think they wouldn't or shouldn't.  But in gaming, the characters are sitting right there staring at you instead of whispering in your head.  The good gamemaster (and no, I am not qualifying that with an "in my opinion") understands that everyone at the table is co-authoring the tale, and needs to let them cut their own path through the jungle.  Nobody likes railroading, the primary characteristic of the weaker GM.

So after having the equivalent of a narrative atomic bomb blow up in their faces, it was time to pull way back and turn over a session to them in which they could digest the twist in the narrative arc and figure out how to respond.  As all GMs know, this can be tricky...because the players are expecting a story as well.

Crossroads kicks off with one of my favourite GMing dirty tricks.  Since the party was split the last session, and because we were introducing a new character, I had two parallel threads  to bring back together.  So we start with Myrna, our Graceful Jack Who Fights With Panache, coming to from unconsciousness in a make-shift cell.  She is a prisoner of the Angulan Knights, along with a frightened twelve-year old girl from one of the local tribes, and a pale, red-eyed stranger.  She has no idea how she got there; the last thing she remembers was going into the Box that housed Bilu-sha-ziri. As her player couldn't make the last session, I used an intrusion here to put her in the cell and explain her absence.

And the dirty trick?  To keep the three other players engaged while their characters were off somewhere else, I put them in the roles of an Angulan Knight, her Knight Commander, and the Aeon Priest chaplain assigned to them.

In Jihad the Knights Angulan take the place of the Knights Templar.  Though they follow the Truth taught by the Aeon Priests, they are a separate order altogether.  The Papacy teaches the eventually re-ascension of Man; the Knights Angulan go a step further and claim that cannot happen so long as the race is "impure."  They are mutant hunters, abhuman killers, and ISIS-like zealots.  Historically, they have uneven relations with the Order of Truth, but with the Amber Pope's declaration of the Gaian Crusade, an agreement has been reached.  The Knights have put their considerable military muscle at the Order's disposal, in return for the Papacy's sanction allowing them to freely hunt the impure throughout the Steadfast.

Myrna, thanks to an artefact in her possession, has a mutation.  So apparently do the two other prisoners.  When she comes to in her cell, it is just hours before the Knights launch their assault on the Scorpion Sanctum.  The very first scene puts her in an uncomfortable position.  Two of the guards, not Knights themselves but mercenaries employed by them, decide that while the Knights are readying for the assault they have time to have a bit of fun with the prisoners. They decide the little girl is easier pickings.  But Myrna is having none of it.  Despite being injured and unarmed, she lays into the pair as they enter the cell she shares with the girl.  Deftly lifting a dagger from one's belt to slit his throat and then using his dropped sword to run the other one through.  

She fights with panache, remember?  It didn't hurt that her player got lucky with rolling a pair of 20s.

Lifting the keys from the fallen guards, she releases the third prisoner and a new protagonist; Hanna, an Exiled Glaive Who Siphons Power.  Hanna hails from the Beyond, and his mutation makes him an energy vampire, draining power from both numenera and living things.  Naturally, he doesn't disclose this up front.

The trio decide that discretion is the better part of valour, and led by the tribal girl, slip from the camp into the wastes.  Mid-escape, they are spotted by the Aeon Priest chaplain...but as a quiet sign that the alliance between the Order and the Knights is not entirely a  harmonious one, he turns a blind eye to their escape.

Now we shift scenes.  Several hours later, Lugar of the Marked Name (our Wasteland Glaive Who Knows Too Much), Karasht (our Charming Nano Who Works Miracles), and Beatrix (our Impulsive Jack Who Fuses Flesh And Steel), have just escaped Bilu-sha-ziri's extra dimensional prison, allowing him to escape as well.  They emerge in the midst of the Knights Angulan laying waste to the Scorpion Sanctum around them.  Bilu-sha-ziri effortlessly destroys the Knights before flying north, leaving his three "rescuers" to pick the cypher and artefact rich corpses of the fallen Knights.  Since they are on the edge of the Cloudcrystal Skyfields, in the lands of Lugar's own people--the Sha'sara--they decide to seek them out for help in escaping the wastelands.

THE SHA'SARA (A Wasteland Culture)

A nomadic people who roam the Fallen Fields and the foothills of the Black Riage, the Sha'sara survive by herding flocks of yols (see "Livestock," p. 12 of The Ninth World Bestiary) and gathering desert plants like the uwama.  They are not above supplementing their diet and supplies by raiding settlements along the wastes.  Matriarchal, men are considered too temperamental and emotional to lead, and instead serve the women as warriors and labourers.  Sha'sara women--either through mutation or contact with some numenera in the distant past--possess the ability to decide whether or not they wish to conceive, giving them ultimate power over the continuance of the tribe.  They are thus polyandrous, and wealthier matriarchs may have up to half a dozen husbands.

The Sha'sara do not follow the Truth, though they can speak Tru, the lower form of the language associated with it.  Instead, they worship the crystals of the Skyfields themselves, which they believe house the spirits of ancestors as well as the yet-to-be-born.  Their shamanesses, the Listeners, interpret the resonances of the crystals to predict future events.  The only men who hold spiritual positions are the half-insane Vajra-Ajari, who are regarded with cautious fear.  

The Sha'sara are easily recognised by their ochre colour robes, and the eerie phosphorescent body paint their employ drawn from uwama berries.  These intricate designs mark tribe, clan, and status. 

Lugar leads his friends across the wastes following Sha'sara trail markers, and by nightfall they make the encampment.  We discover Lugar's mother is actually the wealthiest and most influential of the tribe's matriarchs, but not particularly pleased to see him.  We also discover that Myrna and Hanna are here as well, since the little girl they rescued was Sha'sara as well.  Reunited, they catch up on all that has happened and consider where to go from here.

And this is where player agency comes in, and as a GM you need to be flexible.  Having designed a campaign in which a massive, epic crusade is slowly brewing, the group decided they want none of it.  Their plan is to find a pass across the Black Riage and strike out into the Beyond, as far away from the shifting politics of the Steadfast as they can get.  Putting distance between themselves and the fallen god they just released made sense to them as well.  The group's response to the plot twist was to escape it.

To that end they ask the tribe for help.  They need provisions and a good pass across the mountains.  But the Sha'sara have a price.  

Some of their men, on a raiding party, have been taken by the goatish abhumans known as Margr (p. 244 of Numenera).  Brutal and frightening prolific, I decided to borrow a page from my favourite Gloranthan monster, the Broo.  In Jihad there are no female Margr, and the males reproduce by rape.  They can rape any animal, male or female, and their hideous seed steals DNA from the host organism to create one to five hybrids.  Female victims have, on occasion, survived Margr birth.  Male victims never do, torn open from inside as their offspring wriggle out.  The Sha'sara want their men back.

The Margr, who like Games Workshop's Chaos Beastmen owe their inspiration to RuneQuest's horrifying Broo

The party then tracks the Margr to their nest, and engages them in battle.  Karasht, meanwhile, uses his Alleviate power to "cure" the impregnated male victims in a grotesque scene that liquifies the offspring and expels them as a stinking black goo.  Their end of the bargain upheld, they lead the male Sha'sara back to the tribe.

Next time...they cross the mountains.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


Despite the availability of various versions of the Mahabharata, on page, screen, and in live performance, I am assuming that it will be less familiar to the average American or European reader than the Iliad or the Aeneid, for instance. I have seen my task as one of trying to open the reader's eyes--as my own were opened--to the richness of a literary masterpiece they may hardly have heard of until now...
Carole Satyamurti, from her Preface

FIFTEEN TIMES THE LENGTH OF THE BIBLE, the Mahabharata is a sprawling saga of gods and mortals, demons and monsters, comedy and tragedy. It is the story of Kuruksetra, a cosmological war that ended the previous Golden Age and gave rise to our Age, the fallen Kali Yuga. On on side, divine beings incarnated in mortal form as Lord Krishna and the five Pandava brothers. On the other, demonic powers incarnated as Duryodhana and his ninety-nine Kaurava brothers. Disguised as a dynastic struggle between human cousins, it is actually a fight for the destiny of the Earth.

Composed around two thousand years ago, but with an oral tradition stretching back a millennium before that, the Mahabhrata is as familiar to the people of India and South Asia as the stories of Adam and Eve or Moses and Pharoah are to most Westerners. Usually compared to the Iliad and Odyssey, it certainly shares much in common with them; Sanskrit and classical Greek are close cousins, with vocabulary and grammatical structures strikingly similar. Both descend from an earlier Indo-European ancestor, and it is easy to see the linguistic and thematic relations between Greek and Vedic mythologies (a clear example is the god Uranus and the god Varuna, both lords of the night sky). But the Mahabhrata differs sharply from its classical Greek cousins in that for hundreds of millions it remains a religious scripture, and enjoys a position in Indian culture that is more Biblical than Homeric. The Bhaghavad Gita, the section Westerners are most likely to have heard of, is still a source of moral, ethical, and spiritual teachings to many on the subcontinent, and indeed has inspired people far beyond. Because it is such a significant text, people have been attempting English translations since the 19th century. The best known is probably KM Ganguli's, but despite being the most complete translation in English, its stilted Victorian prose is nearly as alien to modern readers as the Sanskrit. Several others, among them William Buck, R.K. Naryan, and C. Rajagopalachari, have published condensed versions also in prose. All seem to be missing something.

The problem seems to be that its very heart, the Mahabharata is a poem. Traditionally, audiences would have experienced it in song or chant (indeed Bhaghavad Gita means "the song of God"). The English retellings, concentrating on making it clear and comprehensible for modern audiences, have generally ignored this, opting for prose instead. This isn't necessarily a bad decision; any attempt to directly imitate the metrical form of the shlokas (the stanzas used in classical Sanskrit literature) in English would sound jarring anyway. But undeniably something is lost by changing it to prose, and these Mahabhratas all seem drier and dustier for it. So while there are certainly good translations to be had in terms of accuracy and keeping alive the stories, no one has really been able to make the epic sing in English as it must have sung to its audiences so very long ago.

No one until Carole Satyamurti, that is.

Mahabhrata, a Modern Retelling is glorious, and like so many brilliant ideas you are dumbfounded no one ever got around to thinking of it before. It starts with the realization that retelling the Mahabharata isn't a job for scholars, it's work that requires a poet. Satyamurti, an award-winning poet with several published collections under her belt, comes at the work not as a Sanskritist would--primarily concerned with hewing close to the original language--but as an artist who paints pictures with English verse. Since she does not, by her own admission, read Sanskrit, she allows herself to trust the most respected translations of those who do, soaking them up and respinning them in a way that sings to the English ear. The result is the Mahabharata I first longed for twenty years ago, when I read it in Sanskrit, and desperately wanted to share it with my English-speaking friends and family. It's the retelling you can hand to English speakers and say "this is why it has been loved for two thousand years."

This is no mean feat. Satyamurti has distilled 100,000 Sanskrit shloka couplets into 27,000 lines of English blank verse, keeping the structure of the original 18 books largely intact. Her choice of blank verse, with nine to eleven syllables per line and an average of five stresses, is perfect. The Sanskrit shloka, consisting of 32 syllables in two 16 syllable lines, was a widespread and well known form in ancient and classical India, just as blank verse--the meter of Shakespeare's plays and Milton's Paradise Lost--is for modern English speakers. Reading Mahabharata in this form is a subconscious cue that we are reading a classic.

It is also vibrant. With all due respect to Ganguli, his 5000 page retelling is often numbingly dull to even devoted Sanskritists and scholars. Satyamurti's poem by contrast is nearly impossible to put down, racing through the massive storyline with lithe, economical verse. On the crucial scenes she slows to focus attention, then picking up pace to speed through the less vital sections of the narrative. In addition to her story-telling skills her sense of character is pitch-perfect. Each of the twenty four or so principal figures she portrays in all their multiple dimensions, and the secondary characters are consistently distinct and memorable. This is the work of an artist just as devoted to her craft as she clearly is the Mahabharata, and the fact that this is a retelling should never detract from the fact that Satyamurti has composed one of the longest narrative poems In English history, and is it masterful.

I simply cannot recommend this retelling enough.